Vets can battle red tape in pursuit of degree

Kevin Palacios, 23, of Garden City, is photograped

Kevin Palacios, 23, of Garden City, is photograped in the VA lounge at Farmingdale State College where he attends school as a freshman with an interest in mathematics. (Credit: Steven Sunshine)

Kevin Palacios really wants a college degree. But he dreads getting up for his 8 a.m. freshman biology class at Farmingdale State College.

Not for reasons that a typical college freshman might have. For Palacios, 23, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, memories of serving in Afghanistan routinely keep him up until 4 a.m.

It is hard to sleep when you're accustomed to staying awake and alert for so long, he said. It is hard to be comfortable when sharp bursts of pain emanate from a hole in your lower backbone and out-of-alignment right knee. And it's frustrating when you forget what teachers say in class, but still remember sitting in convoy vehicles blasted by improvised explosive devices.


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"The only thing that sticks to my head is numbers," said Palacios, who is studying applied mathematics rather than the science track he planned when he first enrolled. "It's ridiculous. I struggle, but I'm trying my best."

More and more students like Palacios are in college classrooms across Long Island. With the war in Iraq over and many troops returning to the United States from Afghanistan, they are taking advantage of education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, officials said.

On this Veterans Day and going forward, universities are tailoring programs to serve this expanding group of student-veterans -- a group that carries with it more than books.

 

Serving those who served

"Many of them are coming out of situations where they're in combat zones," said Shawn O'Riley, dean of University College at Adelphi University in Garden City. "This is a whole new generation who have been exposed to different things than we've had in the last 20 or 30 years."

To make the transition to college easier, schools, including Farmingdale State, Stony Brook University, St. Joseph's College in Patchogue and Nassau Community College, have created veterans affairs liaisons who act as intermediaries between admissions, student accounts, and registrar's offices.

"We use the one-stop model," said Evangeline Majares, dean of veteran services at Nassau Community College. "Our college is a very big institution, and you can really get lost if you don't know anybody here."

This semester, Suffolk County Community College created an Office of Veteran's Educational and Transitional Services at the Michael J. Grant Campus in Brentwood to centralize services on all three campuses, said John Lombardo, associate vice president for workforce and economic development.

Another pressing need for veterans is assistance in managing oft-changing guidelines for education benefits. Many said they didn't know what they were entitled to. "There wasn't a lot of information given to us when we were leaving the military about accessing education benefits," said Mary Beth Kerstiens, 26, of Selden, a former Army Reservist and a St. Joseph's College senior.

"You get bounced around a lot when you're leaving . . . they just kind of leave it on the VA to help you with the process."

Boost to vets' educationThe Post-9/11 GI Bill is one of the most widely used benefits for those who served in the military after Sept. 10, 2001. Veterans with three or more years of service receive 100 percent of in-state tuition and fees at public schools for 36 months, or typically as much as $17,500 per year at private institutions. They also get book and housing stipends.

The Department of Veterans Affairs paid more than $22 million in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to 22 Long Island colleges and universities that served a total of 1,931 students between 2009 and 2011, government records show.

However, delays at the Veterans Affairs Northeast Regional Office in Buffalo, where education claims for New York veterans are processed, exceeded the national average of 30 days by 16 additional days between late 2011 and early 2012, prompting Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call for an overhaul.

Some colleges have created flexible policies so veterans aren't financially penalized by the delays. St. Joseph's offers a $500 textbook advance to cover book expenses, while NCC, Stony Brook, SUNY Old Westbury and SCCC, to name a few, allow deferred payments.

Learning in academic settings alongside teenagers who often are more interested in their cellphones than in class was yet another adjustment, said Nicholas Tetro, 24, of Uniondale. "It drove me up the wall," said Tetro, a Nassau Community College senior and a Marine Corps infantry veteran who served in Haiti and Iraq. "I've been to 24 countries, so many states . . . and now I'm sitting in a box for three hours?" he said. "You feel like a lion pacing in a cage."

For Clinnt Favo, 26, of Coram, a first-semester student in Stony Brook's post-baccalaureate program, staying focused in the classroom also was challenging. A former Navy corpsman embedded in a Marine unit in Iraq, Favo was used to looking out for snipers in Ramadi. "We're taught to always be aware of your surroundings," Favo said. "Sometimes I feel like I have ADD now. I get easily distracted. The classrooms are so big. You look around."

 

When counseling's neededSome colleges make counseling referrals and extend disability services to veterans who have documented cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

At St. Joseph's, such diagnoses are not shared with faculty, said Shannon O'Neill, assistant dean for military and veteran students. "Nobody wants to be labeled," she said. "The only thing that's really shared is what those accommodations are if a veteran needs extra time on a test or a recording device for notes in class."

Palacios said he has found it's easier to listen to textbooks that have been converted to e-readers in order to study at home.

Salma Khowaja, 31, of Jericho, a senior at Farmingdale State College, said she has gleaned study skills that contrast with the way she learned as an Air Force airman. "In the service, the information they give you is important. They don't give you anything that you don't need," she said. "It's the exact opposite with your classes."

For veterans navigating college, trading such tips is common in spaces created specifically for them. Nassau Community College, Farmingdale State and SUNY Old Westbury have veterans lounges that serve as meeting locales for student groups including the Student Veterans Association, Order of Military Veterans and Armed Forces Association. They are also refuges, where veterans, with unique language and experiences, are automatically understood.

"This center has service members that -- they've been in our boots and we've been in their boots . . . we can relate to each other," said Nicolas Garcia, 22, a freshman from Astoria, Queens, who served in the Navy as an aviation electronics technician. "There is no way I can relate to an 18-year-old."

College administrators also are attempting to better relate to veterans.

SUNY Old Westbury officials have attended conferences by the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators. The SUNY Veterans Services Organization acts as a "clearinghouse" on issues from mental health care to job referrals for administrators across the SUNY system who sign on, said group president Eric Farina, director of veterans affairs at Farmingdale State.

"Colleges can be like the military, meaning there's a mini-bureaucracy. The last thing I want a vet to do is get frustrated and say, 'School's not for me,' " said Farina, who was a squad leader in the National Guard. "My number-one job is to keep them in college."

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